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Taken under their wings

If you're thinking of starting a garden to attract the fluttering insects, be warned: Butterflies have magical quality that casts a spell.

By RICK GERSHMAN
Published March 18, 2004

  photo
[Times photo: Scott Keeler 1999]
A tawny emperor butterfly rests on a palm frond in Dunedin.
photo
[Times files]
Monarch caterpillars feed on a milkweed plant.
Butterfly guide photo gallery
Here are some of the common species found in the Tampa Bay area.
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All about butterflies
Answers to some frequently asked questions about butterflies
Butterfly gardens at home
Attracting butterflies to your back yard isn't difficult once you know the basics

ST. PETERSBURG - Appearances matter, even when it comes to critters.

Take squirrels and rats. Both are rodents. One has a cute, furry tail and hangs out in trees. When a squirrel runs onto a road, you'll just about wreck the car trying to avoid it. Rats, however, are beneath such consideration.

The butterfly certainly benefits from this double standard. In trying to differentiate between moths and butterflies, scientists determined they're basically the same bug. Both originate as caterpillars. One creates a cocoon and comes out a moth. The other creates a chrysalis - see, it even gets a cooler name while pupating - and comes out a butterfly.

Ultimately, what matters is that butterflies are pretty; most moths aren't. If you're a moth, you get referenced in a horror film (The Mothman Prophecies). If you're a butterfly, you're in the title of an Ashton Kutcher flick (The Butterfly Effect) or a Mariah Carey album.

Okay, so maybe the moth wins that round.

But nobody's heart has ever fluttered over a Moth Festival. And nobody has ever lovingly laid out a garden to attract moths.

Butterflies, on the other hand, get lots of special attention from amateur and professional gardeners alike. Just about every botanical garden boasts a butterfly habitat. This weekend, the spotlight is on the fifth annual Butterfly Festival at Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg.

If you've considered taking up butterfly gardening to lure the critters to your yard, you'll get plenty of useful tips at the festival. But beware: Those who try out the pastime quickly become passionate, said Pamela Traas, author of Gardening for Florida's Butterflies.

"Back 15 years ago, when my daughter was in kindergarten, her teacher asked if I would put in a butterfly garden," said Traas, a Safety Harbor resident who will be a featured expert at the festival. "You can't help but get hooked. It's a bridge back to the natural world of which we are all a part."

By establishing a butterfly garden at home, Traas said, people "can experience the incredible magic of metamorphosis up close. It touches that magic place in all of us."

Butterflies aren't impressively colored just for aesthetics, Traas said. The coloration helps them find mates and keeps them out of predators' tummies. "The wild world is all about staying alive," she said.

Tim Adams is vice president of the North American Butterfly Association's Pinellas County chapter. The Dunedin resident has been active in butterfly photography and doing butterfly counts since 1998. He has a small garden, and he often takes field trips to wildlife areas to examine butterflies. One of his favorite wildlife areas is the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park in southwest Pasco County.

"I believe we've recorded 81 species for that park, which is really a lot for one park," Adams said. "There's a bike path up there, and it's got butterflies all over."

Adams has found the study of butterflies enriching and therapeutic.

"It's a hobby. I like to get out, get away from all the normal daily activities," he said. "I think what is most fascinating is their life cycle, and all their colors, how beautiful they are.

"I like to concentrate on trying to find the rarer species. Florida has (recorded) 162 species, and I'm working toward that goal (of sighting all of them). I'm at 113; I'll have to do a lot more traveling to get the rest of them."

Adams will present a slide show Saturday at the festival. He said that by adding several types of inexpensive host plants to a garden, "You should be able to get 20 to 25 (butterfly) species in your yard. Not all at once, but over time, you should be able to see at least that."

He was asked what he considered the main reason to start a butterfly garden.

"I would say just go out and get a couple plants and rear a butterfly itself," he said. "To watch them go from egg all the way to an adult, that intrigues anybody, from kids to people up in their 80s."

PREVIEW: Sunken Gardens' Butterfly Festival, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, 1825 4th St. N, St. Petersburg. Admission $7 adults, $5 ages 55 and older, $3 ages 3 to 16, free under 3. (727) 551-3100.

[Last modified March 17, 2004, 17:12:57]


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